COMMENT

Historical baggage

By Costas Iordanidis

In Ukraine, which is on the brink of civil war, it’s not just whether the former Soviet republic will join the Western camp or retain a neutral status reminiscent of Finland before the breakdown of USSR that’s at stake.

Beyond the suffering of ordinary people in the country, at the heart of the bloody conflict lies the question of Russia’s place in the international system; that is, the system which emerged after the end of the Soviet regime and the spread of free market capitalism around the globe – and the ensuing promotion of a uniform political way of doing things.

European countries had held a rather ambiguous stance toward imperial Russia for centuries. As an authoritarian and conservative power, czarist Russia was a precious ally in the survival of the Ancien Regime from the tsunami of the French Revolution and the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte. A destabilizing force for the Ottoman Empire, Russia was primarily a threat to the interests of Britain and France.

The problem was solved, as it were, with the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917, which severed the ties of the Russian Empire to the West. The question returned with renewed intensity with the collapse of the communist system and the end of the Soviet empire.

A first bid to isolate post-communist Russia from the West came in Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” That was 1993, and the bid was of course, theoretical. Huntington’s positions sparked controversy in Greece too because, in his understanding, Greece, in cultural terms, did not belong to the European system.

Of course, the Russians were hardly interested in the theories of Western analysts. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, they sought to strengthen their economic ties with Europe. Germany is their key partner, and not only because of its energy dependence on Moscow. Berlin appears to have hit a ceiling in its penetration of Western markets, which means that any Teutonic economic expansion will need to be eastward. It is in that context that we need to look at the Eurasian geopolitics recently in vogue among Russian analysts.

Ukraine is in now in turmoil because of its geography and historical baggage. The presence of oligarchs hijacking the political scene utilizing the Russian and Western factors for their own gains has not made things any easier. The international tension is gradually exposing the interests of Germany and the US, which must at some point converge, also taking Russian sensibilities into consideration. Until that happens, the crisis in Ukraine will remain unsolved.

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